BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon’s Defence Minister Elias Murr said on Tuesday the army had killed at least 222 Islamist fighters during a 15-week standoff at a refugee camp, as troops hunted down the last remnants of the Fatah al-Islam militia following a final assault.
“The number of terrorists killed stands at 222 and there are 202 who were taken prisoner,” Murr told a press conference during which he hailed the army’s weekend victory over the Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp.
He said there was still an undetermined number of militants buried in mass graves inside the camp by fellow fighters.
Murr stressed that the bombed-out seaside camp would remain under the authority of the state, reiterating similar comments made by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
“There will be no authority but that of the state to protect the civilians at Nahr al-Bared,” Murr said. “Our Palestinian brothers also paid a dear price because of these terrorists.”
Prior to the standoff that began May 20 at at Nahr al-Bared, Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian camps were declared off-limits to the Lebanese army and were under the control of armed Palestinian factions.
Georges Khoury, head of the army’s intelligence service, said many of the Islamists captured had admitted that the Sunni Muslim extremist group was linked to Osama bin-Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.
As he spoke, troops were combing the battered camp and the nearby region, seeking to smoke out the last remaining fighters involved in the worst internal unrest since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
An army officer told AFP that troops had clashed with two militants early Tuesday, wounding and capturing one of them. Six bodies were also recovered from the camp Tuesday, the officer said.
“We believe a few militants are still holed up inside the camp,” he said on condition of anonymity.
Murr said 163 soldiers had fallen during the battles but urged their families to hold their head high as their deaths represented a victory over terrorism.
“This victory allowed us to put an end to the worst threat ever faced by the Lebanese,” he said. “Fatah al-Islam could have spread throughout the country like cancerous cells.”
He added that the country was determined to continue to fight terrorism.
“The army has defeated Fatah al-Islam, it has defeated terrorism,” he said. “They took the army’s patience for weakness, its wisdom as a sign of reluctance and its warnings as mere words.
“But the army had no choice. Either the terrorist criminals surrendered or they faced a military assault,” he added.
Most of the camp’s 31,000 Palestinian residents fled at the start of the fighting but many stayed for weeks in increasingly dire humanitarian conditions as food, water and power supplies ran dry.
The army said troops have seized a large amount of weapons inside the camp, including anti-tank rockets, sniper guns, mortars, Katyusha rockets, explosives, mines and booby traps.
About 3,000 soldiers took part in the fighting at Nahr al-Bared, including several commando units which began to withdraw from the area Tuesday to head back to their bases.
They were expected to be met on the road by cheerful crowds.